Designing Public Access Systems

Eric Hunter (Emeritus Professor of Information Management, Liverpool John Moores University)

New Library World

ISSN: 0307-4803

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Hunter, E. (2000), "Designing Public Access Systems", New Library World, Vol. 101 No. 2, pp. 88-91.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The title of this work is perhaps a little misleading in that it does not deal with the design of the actual systems but with the system interfaces. The authors state that the book: “seeks to review the practices and principles of human‐computer interaction (HCI) and apply them in the context of public access interfaces”. They claim that this “is a novel focus”. “Other books on HCI have a focus that largely assumes that users are accessing information systems in an office environment within a specific organisation.”

The book begins by introducing some basic definitions and ideas concerning the nature of interface design in public access systems. Then it deals with aspects of the components of the systems: users, tasks, the interaction environment and interaction styles. Later chapters focus on the process of design and evaluation.

So far, so good, but, where this review is concerned, the question that must be asked is how relevant and how useful might this book be to the majority of readers of this journal, namely librarians and information officers. Most people in these professions will be aware of, if not necessarily familiar with, many of the topics covered. The chapter on the “interaction environment” deals, among other things, with open systems, client‐server architecture and the Z39.50 standard. The chapter on “searching” explains Boolean logic, proximity operators, truncation, information retrieval theory, and so on. The chapter on “interaction styles” includes command languages, menus, form filling and GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) and the chapter on “tools to support interface analysis and design” covers data modelling and other modelling methodologies. Those who wish to improve their knowledge of these and related areas, in the context of interface design, will find this book very useful. As the OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogue) is referred to as an example several times in the text, this should ensure that the librarian feels quite at home. Indeed, this reviewer would consider that the text shows a very definite bias towards information and library work

However, librarianship and information work is only one of a number of occupations targeted by the book and the OPAC is only one of the illustrative examples used. The approach adopted, the authors say: “should be of interest to a wide audience, from information managers to information specialists and systems designers, and to retailers and others who use the systems to provide information or to otherwise interact with their customer”.

Access via multimedia kiosks, for instance, the authors tell us, has been widely used in business, in advertising and retailing, and in education and training. These workstations are specifically designed for public access and, as the name suggests, they present information in a variety of different media. Where banking is concerned, we are all familiar with the “hole in the wall” form of public access, the automated teller machines (ATMs) which enable us to check our balances, withdraw cash, and make use of other services. Then there is the Internet and more specifically the World Wide Web, currently the ultimate in public access.

Thus, despite the apparent bias, the book covers a wide range of other public access systems to be found on the high street, at railway stations or airports, in museums and art galleries, and in the home. How relevant is the design of the interfaces in these systems to the librarian? Clearly the authors, both of whom are well known in the information and library world, think that it is very relevant. This reviewer would tend to agree and would consider it to be advantageous for the librarian or information officer to examine human‐computer interaction from as wide a perspective as possible. There is much to be learned from the experiences and practices of others.

This is an ambitious book that tackles an important subject and it deserves our attention. It can also serve as a source of information on many matters that are of relevance in library and information work. The section on evaluation, for example, deals with a variety of techniques and includes a number of case studies. A useful inclusion is the reproduction of a user‐evaluation questionnaire for interactive systems.

Having said that, there are one or two quibbles.

Where the World Wide Web is concerned, all of the various public access services noted are becoming available there, banking, retailing, travel services, library catalogues, everything and anything. The Web is a hypertext system and hypertext therefore becomes extremely important where the design of interfaces is concerned. The detail relating to hypertext in the book is not extensive. Perhaps more attention should have been paid to this, especially since the authors themselves stress that their chosen perspective “will clearly become even more significant as the use of networks and multimedia databases further erodes the boundaries between organisations”.

When accessing resources on the Web, search engines make use of hierarchical structures, or classification, as well as keyword searching. In fact, classification, by its very nature, that is the bringing together of like things or like material, lies at the heart of all subject indexing and, by extension, searching. However, any mention of the use of classification as an interface facility is notable by its absence from this work.

Last, the index could certainly be improved. It is marred by omissions, inconsistency and imprecision. To take one example, the relevant index entry for the OPAC, already noted in this review as being mentioned at a number of places in the text, reads as follows:

OPAC’s 12, 13, 39‐41

OPAC’s – help 197

Unfortunately, a great deal of information on OPACs is provided elsewhere, for instance on pages 21, 28, 49, 95, 125, 131 and the whole of chapter four, pages 61‐86, considers “information seeking in public access systems mainly in the context of OPACs and other bibliographic databases”. In addition, more contextual subdivision might have been helpful here, and there are no related entries or references under “catalogues” or “online public access catalogues”. There is inconsistency too; some acronyms or initialisms are also indexed under their spelled out names, others are not. Where imprecision is concerned, single term and somewhat meaningless entries such as “attention”, “methods” or “messages” are examples.

These relatively minor (apart from the problems with the index) criticisms do not detract from the fact that overall this is a book to be recommended. However, the rather high price could be a deterrent, particularly for students.

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